Urban political violence in the fifteenth century, from Prague to Hamburg

Note to reader: This present essay is complemented by Polish and Czech sources translated and annotated in

The Free City

Medieval urban spaces took on a variety of forms, and in North Central Europe the Free City emerged as a somewhat unique type in the 13th-14th Centuries. Not quite as independent or ruthless as a true City State like Venice or Veliky Novgorod, they were also far more independent than many Western cities like London or Paris. The so called Free Cities of Central Europe were generally speaking largely autonomous and self-managed, while still being integrated into larger polities such as the Holy Roman Empire the Crusader State of the Teutonic Knights, or the Kingdom of Poland.

Also called Royal Cities[1], Free Imperial Cities[2], and by a variety of other euphemisms, these were typically walled and well-fortified communities, but fairly small in size (often between 2-5000 residents[3], with as many as 50,000 or so in German-speaking areas, and as high as perhaps 100,000 in Flanders). They were governed by their own councils and burgomeisters, protected by elaborate fortifications and well-armed militias, and tended to be active in defense and sometimes aggressive in the pursuit of their rights and economic interests, but rarely invested resources in acquiring territorial power[4]. Instead they placed a strong emphasis on maintaining the “peace of the roads”[5] so as to allow commerce to thrive from town to town. Beyond that they typically stayed out of princely politics and the endless game of Hausmachtpolitik as much as they could, forming alliances of several towns[6] when they deemed it necessary to take on the princes.

Figure 1: A weavers uprising in Köln (Cologne) is put down by the ruling elite of merchant-Patricians in 1371. A later artisans uprising in 1396 was successful, leading to many changes in the city.

Political unrest in the Free Cities

Aside from external threats, Free Cities also faced many challenges from internal power struggles and political unrest. According to one estimate, there were at least 210 uprisings in just 40 towns in the Holy Roman Empire between the late 13th and mid-14th Centuries[7] Again, in comparison to true city-states these internal disputes were not quite as extreme or bloody, but they could still be quite consequential. Often various factions would posture and push one another quite a bit before any actual violence broke out. Sometimes this resulted in catastrophe for the town, as was the case in Mainz in 1462, when Bishop Adolph II von Nassau took advantage of ongoing internal strife and captured the city, killed 400 people and heavily fined and then exiled all “disloyal” citizens[8]. He permanently rescinded their rights to self-governance in 1463. In a similar conflict called the Rostocker Domfehde from 1483-1492, Rostock, weakened by internal conflicts over the construction of their new Cathedral, lost their rights to an aggressive Duke Magnus II of Mecklenberg.

Quite often however, the opposite occurred, resulting in the city being significantly strengthened, especially when the factions managed to reach a Rezeß or compromise, such as the famous Hamburg Rezeß of 1410. This conflict started with a public dispute between a visiting duke and an armorer to whom he owed money, leading to a tense standoff between the artisans and the town council which lasted two years. The 1410 Rezeß resulted in the formation of the cities first constitution and the addition of a second house in their internal parliament, contributing to the comparative stability and prosperity that Hanseatic town enjoyed and its status as a republic for the next five centuries[9].


Political unrest within towns could have substantial repercussions well beyond the town walls. Two good examples of this occurred in Prussia during the 13 Years War, one of several conflicts between the Teutonic Knights and Poland from the 14th through the 16th centuries[11]. After the major Polish victory in the pivotal battle of Grunwald / Tannenberg in 1410, the tide had turned in favor of the Poles. But the Order was tenacious and intractable, and their decline was very gradual, lasting generations, and full of violent episodes.

The 13 Years war broke out in February 1454, and it was to become another hinge point in the multi-generational power struggle. Twenty mostly German cities in Prussia rose up against the Teutonic Order and made an alliance with Poland. It began with successful uprisings of town militias pushing the brother-knights out of Gdansk, Torun, Elbing and several smaller towns. But Poland suffered a setback at the major battle of Chojnice in September of 1454, and from that point struggled to contend with the resourceful and aggressive Teutonic Knights in a variety of smaller battles, sieges and raids over the next several years.

Several incidents of urban strife afflicted the Prussian cities and Poland during the 13 Years War, with two proving particularly damaging. The first was the Battle of the Kneiphof in Königsberg. This town was part of the initial uprising against the Order in 1454, with the militia successfully evicting the Knights. But the town, as was often the case, was split into three municipalities and each of those municipalities had their own factions. Artisans in two of these towns mistrusted the mercantile elite and resented the new high taxes imposed by Poland to finance the war.

They rose up against the merchants in 1455, and seeing an opening, the Teutonic Knights rushed in several knights and a few hundred native Prussian cavalry to support the rebellion. Relatively feeble assistance, consisting of just a few ships and a few dozen soldiers from Danzig was too little, and came too late. The Order captured the municipality of Kneiphof and the town of Königsberg. After the Teutonic Order was pushed out of their castle town in Malbork, Königsberg became their new headquarters and remained a bastion of German military and economic power until the end of WW2. Thus a relatively small street battle involving a few hundred people had long-lasting consequences.

The second major setback came six years later in 1461, in the Polish royal capital of Krakow. After several years of struggling both financially and militarily in the war, Poland had begun winning some battles, thanks in part to a new commander, a noble named Andrzej Tęczyński.  On the heels of his recent victories, and flush with cash gifts from the king, Andrzej entered Krakow to make some purchases. During his visit he got into an argument with an armorer over an ill-fitting harness, and unlike in Hamburg, there was no Rezeß.

Andrej and his courtiers beat the armorer twice, the second time very badly and in front of a crowd, outraging the local artisans. In spite of warnings from his men, and attempts by the queen to intervene (the King was traveling elsewhere) the proud young lord remained in the town and a crowd of outraged artisans captured and killed him, resulting in a major setback for the Polish army in the war.

The following excerpt is from Jan Długosz “Annales”, the Maurice Michael translation (IM Publications, Sussex UK, 1987) in the entry for 1461, P.539. This passage was originally written by Jan Długosz prior to 1480.

“While the king is in Włocławek[12], there is an unfortunate episode in Cracow, one that is to poison relations between the city and its knights for years to come. On July 16, Andrew of Tęczyń[13] angrily rebukes the armourer Clement for failing to deliver a suit of armor on time and for not making it fit; and when the armourer makes a vigorous reply[14], strikes him, but only lightly. The armorer goes to the town hall and complains that he has been grievously assaulted, and, on the way back from lodging his complaint, he is accosted by Tęczyń, whom he berates for hitting him and brandishing his fist, threatens to reply the blow with interest; he was of course, angry, and he may have been hoping for compensation; but, as a result, Tęczyń and his servants fall upon him and beat him[15]. When they learn of this, the City Fathers are indignant and more angry than is justified; indeed, they seem to have been more inclined to inflame the quarrel between the artisans and the nobility than to composite it; for the close the city’s gates and report the incident to the young Queen[16].

She demands sureties of 8,000 marks[17] and enjoins both parties to keep the peace and await her judgement., which she was to give in the morning, for it is already late in the day, indeed, ten o’clock. The City Fathers return to the town hall and order all householders to arm themselves and assemble there. Meanwhile the Queen and his friends are advising Tęczyń to leave the city and go to the castle. To Tęczyń this smacks of cowardice and, with his brothers and friends, he shuts himself up in a house in Bracka Street intending to resist any attack.

Then a bell in Mariacki Church starts pealing- on whose order no one knows- and this proves the signal for a riot., which the City Fathers could have quelled with a little common sense and exercise of their authority[18]. Everyone stops work and a crowd, not only angry, but tipsy, presses round the house, intending to kill Tęczyń, who seeing that his house cannot withstand such an attack, escapes with three companions and some of his servants to the monastery of St. Frederick and takes refuge in its tower.

Then, convinced that he is not safe even there, though his companions try to restrain him, he leaves the tower and hides in the sacristy. The rioters break down the monastery door and, after a long search, find Tęczyń and split his head open. His corpse is dragged through the streets open sewer to the town hall and kept there for two days, riddled with stab wounds and with the hair singed off his face. It is then moved to the Church of St. Wojciech and finally handed over to the victim’s friends and relatives. Tęczyń’s friends in the tower are besieged there all the following day and night, after which they are released. Because of this, the knights of Cracow and Sandomierz[19] at first refuse to take part in the Prussian campaign, but when the King promises that Tęczyń’s death shall be avenged, they agree to take part.”

Fortunately for the Poles, a new military leader named Piotr Dunin helped win a substantial victory against the Order at Świecino in 1462, and went on to help win the war, so it turned out to be a temporary setback.

Not all confrontations of this type ended so violently. A more typical example in Krakow is mentioned by Dlugosz in his entry for 1438[20].

“The increasing import of counterfeit coin causes a popular revolt in Cracow aimed in particular at the Inspector of the Michalow Serafin, the city councilors, and others. Everyone feeling guilty, have taken refuge in the castle itself. When the commotion has subsided and most people hve returned to their homes, Serafin and the others still do not dare leave the castle. Perhaps they would never have been safe had not Bishop Olesnicki of Cracow, after much persuasion from the King, spoken to the proletariat in their own tongue, and pacified them. Serafin and the others are made to do a fortnight’s penance in the castle prison”

The implication here is that some financial malfeasance by Royal and municipal officials which was causing economic harm to the citizens was the cause of a brief uprising, and to placate the burghers the Bishop and the King intervened to put some people briefly in jail, and they in turn presumably curtailed their corrupt activities somewhat (at least enough to prevent another riot). This kind of thing happened on a routine basis in dozens of Free Cities throughout late medieval and Early Modern Europe.

Figure 2: Prague today is typically associated with art, architecture and beer. But the medieval coat of arms sends another, quite unambiguous message.

The Defenestrations of Prague

Prague was prominent among the Free Cities of this era, being in this case a Royal City. Prague was the spiritual and intellectual center of the Kingdom of Bohemia (thanks largely to Charles university, founded by Emperor Karl IV). It was also by far the most formidable fortification in the Kingdom, having proven itself in numerous defensive and offensive battles from the 1420s through the 1470s. Control of Prague effectively meant control of Bohemia.

Arguably, urban strife in Prague was the most consequential of the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods. The First Defenestration of Prague, which took place in 1419, led in short order to the famous Hussite Crusades, and Prague itself was the site of many of the key battles during the Hussite Wars. Defenestration means throwing people out of a window, and in Prague specifically, it always meant throwing the local rulers who were acting on behalf of a foreign prince out of the window, to their death. The Third Defenestration in 1618 started the apocalyptic 30 Years War, which devastated Central Europe and lead to permanent changes in European history with the establishment of the Absolute Monarchies in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

The Second Defenestration in 1483, which occurred between those events is comparatively little known. It did not trigger a Crusade or a huge international war, but it was consequential in the region, buying Bohemia a bit more time of independence and the freedom to practice their own “Heretical” religion for another couple of generations, and re-asserting the political autonomy of the city and the kingdom.

In the 1480s, Bohemia was experiencing one of their many periods of foreign rule. Since the death of the mighty Knight-King George of Podeibrady in 1471, the monarch was officially the Hungarian King Vladislaus II, though the extent to which he actually controlled this kingdom was yet to be tested. Bohemia was unique in Europe at this time in that both Catholic and Heretical (Hussite) forms of Christianity were still openly being practiced, and due to the repeated interregnums and their complex history, much of the actual governance was managed by Landfrieden, treaties of mutual support and protection of commerce between towns and nobles. Attempts to force conversion of the Hussites had been renewed by another Hungarian, Mathias Corvinus, from 1468-1478, but the results were inconclusive. Matthias captured outlying Catholic regions but ultimately failed to defeat the wily Podeibrady, leaving Bohemia itself as a heretical enclave.

After the end of the last Crusade in 1478, under pressure from the Vatican and various Catholic princes, Vladislaus II began to appoint his supporters (also ardent Catholics) to the city councils of Prague and some other Bohemian towns. By the 1480s there was acute tension in the city, as both the Kings urban representatives and new magistrates, and the Catholic nobles he supported in the countryside, were treating burghers heavy handedly and began taking steps against the local Hussite heretics. Two overlapping issues were once again coming to a head – the autonomy of the town and the continued existence of the heretics.

In September 1483[21], after a series of escalating incidents and the discovery of a conspiracy for mass arrests and mass-murder by the monarchist councilors, the townfolk of Prague acted, leading to the Second Defenestration of Prague. The following is summarized from a translation from a 19th Century Czech source which I have edited slightly[22]

The account by Tomek gives us some insight into the exciting and dangerous climate, and some of the martial details of a major urban uprising. Of course we can’t necessarily assume that this is an unbiased account, but it presents an interesting and dramatic narrative which points up some of the elements which seem to often play a role in these events. The incident starts with the long buildup of grievances by the citizens of Prague. In many cases historically where there are people of one (privileged) religious group ruling over another, corruption and abuse become a major problem. According to Sir Tomek, the town councilors appointed by the King were taking bribes, blackmailing people, stealing land and money, using the courts against the non-Catholic citizens, and so on.

The councilors began to feel some push back from all this and tensions rose. There were religious-sectarian incidents in which Catholics disrupted Hussite church services and confiscated property belonging to the locals, and the locals in turn organized some mass-meetings and began arming themselves. Things came to a head when a plot was discovered by the citizens, in part confessed by one of the councilors on his death-bed, that they were planning mass arrests of burgher and artisan leadership followed by executions. The Hussite faction was forewarned and made preparations. They wrote letters to their allies in some other Czech towns, and prepared for a fight.

On the day of the coup, the town authorities had bells rung which was the signal to arrest the prominent Hussites and for their supporters to come out into the streets. But the Hussites, led by a draper named “Bohuslav Legat“, armed with a spear, got the jump on them, charged into the town halls and arrested the city council. There was some street fighting, during which one burgomeister was stabbed with a Guisarme and then thrown out the town hall window (‘defenestrated’) and another who had escaped was captured by “Jan the Tailor” who was also armed with a spear. Nearly identical counter-coups took place in the Czech towns of Nymburk, Žatec, and Hradec Králové.  

After the Czechs finished off any resistance in all three municipalities of Prague and the other towns, they interrogated the corrupt gang of ‘foreign’ city councilors under torture, leaving some other councilors who were not deemed to be part of the corrupt faction alone. The conspirators gave details of the plan and other co-conspirators, (under torture it’s worth pointing out, so the accuracy of their testimony is suspect). The new regime quickly had a few of these people executed and others exiled, while militia and mercenaries prepared for a possible attack from outside, and restored order on the streets after some commoners had robbed Jewish families and ransacked some Catholic churches.

After this followed a complex round of diplomacy. Having restored control of the town, the new council set about trying to smooth over the potential diplomatic shockwaves caused by their counter-coup. They passed laws guaranteeing the rights of both religions (Catholic and Hussite). They drafted polite letters to the more powerful Czech Catholic nobles, such as the Lords of the Rosenberg family of South Bohemia, and to regional princes such as the Duke of Saxony and King Mathias Corvinus of Hungary, as well as the Burgomeister of Nuremberg and other regional knights and gentry, asserting their intention to carry on trade and uphold all previously established alliances and treaties. They emphasized that their revolt was not directed against King Vladislaus (who wisely left town during the disturbances) but merely against his corrupt servitors who were engaged in evil acts without his knowledge. They also pointed out that some of the deposed councilors and their allies had also wronged Catholic gentry and nobles in their depredations.

A counterattack was considered (and heavily encouraged by the Vatican) but Prague had proven her ability to defend her walls many times, and after conflict raged in the area through the 1470s, further war would be destructive and costly. In the end, Vladislaus confirmed the new aldermen in 1484[23], and then again at the Bohemian Diet or assembly in the Rosenberg stronghold of Kutná Hora in 1485, which is considered by many scholars to be the definitive end of the Hussite Wars[24]. The King gave up on his plan to purge Heresy from Bohemia and resumed his complex power politics rivalries the Hapsburgs, the Corvinus family, and other mighty Princes, and life in Bohemia went on as it had before his reign.

The Second Defenestration of Prague is a good example of the significance of urban uprisings. In many of these cases, the Defenestrations, the uprisings in Königsberg and Rostock, political standoffs in Hamburg, and street violence in Krakow could have far-reaching effects both for the town, and for the region. Cities in the 15th and 16th Centuries were important centers of innovation, manufacturing, trade, and political control. Conflicts between mere handfuls of people in a back alley could have ramifications which were felt hundreds of miles away, and for many generations of time. This is yet another way in which the martial culture of urban polities, and the actions of just a few people wielding a sword, a spear, or a bill-guisarme had a significance which far outweighed their own personal experiences.

Cite this article as: Jean Chandler, "Urban political violence in the fifteenth century, from Prague to Hamburg," in Martial Culture in Medieval Town, 19/07/2021, https://martcult.hypotheses.org/1373.

[1] Notably in Poland, Hungary, Sweden and Bohemia

[2] German Freistadt. Most (including those in Poland, Hungary, Sweden etc.) were chartered under German Town Law.

[3] And perhaps a third as many citizens

[4] With some exceptions, like Ulm and Bern. For a good overview see David Eltis, “Towns and Defense in Later Medieval Germany” from Nottingham Medieval Studies: V.33 (1989)

[5] Peace of the roads aka Landfrieden, Landfrydy to the Czechs.

[6] The German term for city-alliances was Stadtbünde. Most of these were temporary and limited in scope, but some lasted for a long time or were repeatedly re constituted. Notable examples of the latter include the Décapole (German Zehnstädtebund) in Alsace, the Three City League in Thuringia (German Thüringer Dreistädtebund), the Pentapolitana in Hungary, the Lusatian League (German Oberlausitzer Sechsstädtebund) in Upper Lusatia, and the Prussian Confederation in Prussia.

[7] “Imperial and Free Towns of the Holy Roman Empire, City-States in Pre-Modern Germany?”, Peter Johanek, p 12 / 306 (from “A comparative study of thirty city-state cultures: an investigation, Copenhagen Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab 2000)

[8] Including Johannes Gutenberg who was heavily fined and exiled from Mainz.

[9] Hamburg was a Republic for 352 years or 583 years, depending on how you count it. See my article about the Rezeß here for more on this subject.

[10] “Imperial and Free Towns of the Holy Roman Empire, City-States in Pre-Modern Germany?”, Peter Johanek, p 12 / 306 (from “A comparative study of thirty city-state cultures: an investigation, Copenhagen Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab 2000)

[11] One hundred and eleven years after Tannenberg none other than Nicholas Copernicus was leading militia against the Teutonic Order in yet another skirmish. See my HROARR article about that incident here.

[12] A city in central Poland almost 400 km north of Krakow.

[13] Aka Andrzej Tęczyński

[14] According to other sources the Armorer apparently pointed out that Tęczyń had gained weight since ordering the harness.

[15] According to other sources the armourer Clement was severely beaten at this time. The real issue though was probably that the nobles continued to consider burghers and especially artisans so far beneath them in status as for it to be permissible to beat them up, while the latter contested this notion. Długosz, as a member of the elite strata of the priestly estate, sympathizes with the knight Tęczyń but as is typical for his narratives, seems exasperated with all the unnecessary violence.

[16] The Queen dwells in Krakow castle, which is a separate entity from the town.

[17] A huge amount!

[18] The City Fathers (Burgomeisters and city council) were probably concerned for their own safety.

[19] Rural nobles in the districts of “Lesser Poland” surrounding these two cities.

[20] This is from page 475 in the Maujrice Michael translation of Dlugosz “Annales”

[21] Boubín, Jaroslav (2011). “The Bohemian Crownlands under the Jagiellons (1471–1526)”. In Pánek, Jaroslav; Tůma, Oldřich (eds.). A History of the Czech Lands. Charles University in Prague. pp. 173–187

[22] I found it quite difficult to find anything about the details surrounding this event in English[22], so I asked a friend Ondřej Vodička to recommend a source, and he suggested the twelve volume Dějepis města Prahy (History of Prague city) published from 1855-1905 by the Czech scholar, knight and parliamentarian, Vaclav Vlaqdivoj Tomek. The next step was to find a translator, of whom via my friend Pedro Maal, Petra Kleinhamplová came to my assistance. The full translation of this passage, which covers pages 31-52 of Dějepis města Prahy, can be found here: https://hroarr.com/article/polish-and-czech-sources-on-medieval-urban-violence/?fbclid=IwAR0EFTpj4_rlOlIZ9kFPg_rm853PqMQsjoRVOS2nUUEL0ipelF9D8y_yAZc.

[23] Boubín page 181.

[24] See Hugh LeCaine Agnew, The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search